With each passing year, the Commission on Presidential Debates is showing itself to be more of a secretive and private organization, and less of a quasi-official public-spirited entity.
It is no longer disclosing sponsors, and some board members who demonstrated concerns about the CPD’s practices are no longer publicly listed as board members.
For example, the private organization is no longer releasing the names of the companies and individuals that financially support or sponsor the debates. As is well known, these debates are closed to all but the Republican and Democratic parties by way of exclusionary polling data.
The organization’s web page lists the names of seven sponsors or the 2012 debates, eight sponsors of the 2008 debates, 11 sponsors of the 2004 debates, and others going back to 1992.
It lists no sponsors for its 2016 debates.
Reached by phone for comment, a spokeswoman for the CPD did not provide an answer for why the organization is declining to name the sponsors. And the spokeswoman did not follow through with any further answer.
The Commission on Presidential Debates has established an entrenched system of duopoly protection
The Commission on President Debates is exempt from paying taxes under section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code. By law, it may not “support or oppose political candidates or political parties.”
And yet the system, process, and governance of the CPD appears designed to entrench the two political parties that govern the organization.
According to the 2015 IRS 990 filing, the most recent available, the board includes 17 members, which is down from 18 in the 2014 filing. Almost all of those members have a specific tie to the Republican Party, Democratic Party, or public television. (Jim Lehrer, who moderated debates in the past, is a member.)
At one time, the presidential debates were hosted by a truly non-partisan organization, the League of Women Voters. It sponsored debates in 1976, 1980 and 1984. But after those debates, the two parties sensed an opportunity to close out political rivals, and created the Commission on Presidential Debates in advance of the 1988 presidential cycle.
At the time, League President Nancy M. Neuman said:
The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.
Board members who raise concerns about the Commission on Presidential Debates are dropped
According to the 2015 form 990 filing, the private organization is co-chaired by Frank Fahrenkopf, the former chairman of the GOP, and Mike McCurry, a former White House Press Secretary for Bill Clinton. But on the CPD web site, it appears as though Dorothy Ridings has taken Mr. McCurry’s place as co-chairman with Fahrenkopf.
McCurry is still a member of the board, and was on stage with Fahrenkopf to introduce the three presidential debates in 2016.
And of the 17 board member listed in the 2015 filing, two are no longer listed as members on the web site: Mitch Daniels, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush, and current president of Perdue University; and Canadian Shirley Tilghman, the former president of Princeton University.
Significantly, Daniels publicly supported the inclusion of Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson in the 2016 debates. He was a member of the CPD board at the time. He is no longer publicly listed as being a member of the CPD board.
What are the undisclosed sponsors of the Commission on Presidential Debates getting for their donations?
Back in 2012, the first time that Gary Johnson ran for president, three sponsors of the CPD publicly withdrew their support for the organization.
We respect all points of view and, as a result, want to ensure that Philips doesn’t provide even the slightest appearance of supporting partisan politics.
On the CPD web site, Phillips is not even listed as having been a sponsor in 2008 or other, prior years. BBH New York, YWCA USA, and EDS, an HP subsidiary, are listed as having supported the organization in 2008, but not in 2012.
Of the seven entities listed as sponsoring the debates in 2012, five are long-time sponsors: Anheuser-Busch, Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Sheldon S. Cohen, International Bottled Water Association, and the Kovler Fund. (Cohen and the Kovler fund date back to 1992, Anheuser-Busch joined in 1996, Buffet joined in 2004, and the bottled water association in 2008.)
Southwest Airlines was new in 2012, as was the law firm of Crowell & Moring.
On their 990 filings, tax-exempt entities are required to list how much they raise, but they do not need to provide the amounts given by individual sponsors.
In 2015, CPD raised $8,131,640. In prior years, the organization raised $100,000 (2014), $1,750 (2013), $2,706,000 (2012), and $5,041,750 (2011).
This above article is Sponsored Content of Our America Initiative.
(Commission on Presidential Debates Co-Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf (L) and former Co-Chairman Mike McCurry speak on stage prior to the debate between U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Lynn University on October 22, 2012 in Boca Raton, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.)